Groves of Academic Anxiety

What Women Really Think
July 13 2009 9:28 AM

Groves of Academic Anxiety

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It’s been interesting of late to read so many reminiscences of Princeton, a topic we may hear more about today as the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings go forward. I graduated from there in 1982, into what still holds the record for being the worst job market since the Great Depression. A year ahead of Walter Kirn, I read with fascination the 2005 piece in the Atlantic that led to his current book about the place, Lost in the Meritocracy . Having grown up on the outskirts of Appalachia, I empathized with Walter's alienation but was struck by how much more dramatic his recollections are than mine, which tend to be garden-variety memories of, say, having my accent made fun of. I also remember the mystery of seeing a racing shell stationed outside the gym during our first week, for recruiting purposes; I had never heard of crew. Or any of the northeastern prep schools. Once we all started job-hunting, I had a great deal of trouble understanding what a "consultant" was, and still do, sort of.

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Sometimes it seems as though everybody who was there in the 1980s felt out of place. Michelle Obama entered in 1981 and wrote, famously, that Princeton was where realized she was black. Her memories have been echoed by Sotomayor, who recalls that matriculating on that suburban campus in the 1970s was like landing in a foreign country. Margaret's more recent trials were I think of a different order: Gen Y has, as Ann points out , been required to amass so many achievements-real achievements, not just trophies, I might add-and has faced such stark admissions odds that I think the place must be a lot more of a pressure cooker than it was back when a lot of us were feeling put upon by the ruling classes, but also, in some of our cases, not always working.

But a couple points need to be made. I am a fan of Walter’s writing but I think he leaves the impression that Princeton was more of an aptocracy in the 1980s than it was. He may well have been admitted thanks to high grades and test scores, but it may also have mattered that he was a legacy-his dad went to Princeton-which could sometimes give you a leg up when it came to admissions. So he may not have been so different from Obama or Sotomayor, both of whom were admitted during a push for diversity. Back in the 1980s, Princeton’s president William Bowen, along with Harvard’s Derek Bok, was working to fashion an approach to affirmative action that did not involve quotas; they pioneered the idea of "race-sensitive admissions," a holistic policy whereby race could be one admissions criterion, along with a host of others including legacy status or athletic achievement or academics or even, I think, where you came from. I think it was a valid and beneficial way to increase diversity on campus, but it did create a backlash that Obama and Sotomayor clearly felt. The upshot of a holistic policy is that nobody quite knew why he or she had been admitted, and that created anxiety.

But I think it's also important to remember that most graduates have profited from their degrees. Michelle Obama tends to dwell on times when she felt underestimated and discouraged by, for example, some school advisers, and no doubt this happened, maybe appallingly often. But she also found help and encouragement, sometimes in unexpected places. When I was reporting a biography of her last year, I encountered Steve Carlson, a white conservative Princetonian who believes in the old-boy network and delights in using it to help people who aren't old boys. When Michelle was an undergrad, she found his name in a notebook in the career center and wrote him at his Chicago law firm, Sidley Austin, asking if they had any openings over the summer. He wrote her back saying that they didn't hire college students for the summer, but compiled a list of interesting workplaces that might. He saved her contact information and a few years later wrote her at her home address, asking if she'd decided to go to law school and offering to take her to lunch. She later cited his kindness as one reason she took a job at Sidley, where in 1989 she was assigned to mentor a summer associate named Barack Obama.

So when all is said and done, Princeton benefited our first lady in ways she could never have predicted, and the same doubtless is true of Sotomayor, maybe even Walter Kirn. For my part, I know that when I graduated into that horrible job market of 1982, the person who helped me get a job was a Princeton grad-actually, two, strangers both, whom I contacted out of the same notebook Michelle used. As Hanna once pointed out to me, just because an experience was unpleasant or difficult doesn't mean it was a mistake to have undertaken it.

Photograph of a rower in Princeton by Al Bello/Allsport/Getty Images.

Liza Mundy is the director of the Breadwinners and Caregivers Program at the New America Foundation and the author of The Richer Sex.